by Michael Grose
If you’re the parent of an anxious child, you’re most certainly not alone. Millions of families all over the world are right there with you. Though it’s helpful to know, we understand that it doesn’t make the challenging role of parenting an anxious child any easier. What will is developing and deepening your understanding of childhood anxiety and the important role you play in helping them manage it.
While at first parenting an anxious child can feel overwhelming and difficult, I want you to think about it differently. Take a moment to recognise that you, your anxious child and your family have been presented with an opportunity. You can’t change what is happening right in front of you. You can’t undo it. What will help your anxious child to flourish, despite their anxiety, is first and foremost someone recognising they need assistance.
Noticing if your child is moving away from a more calm and relaxed persona to feeling more stressed, along with any accompanying behavioural change, is your cue to ‘watch and wait’ over time to see if these changes in fact point to anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety triggers part of the brain to fire up the fight-or-flight response or, as some aptly call it, the fight, flight, freeze or freak out response, to protect us from danger. It’s an emotion, and like other emotions it has a start, a middle and an end. Except when it doesn’t. That’s the experience for an estimated half a million plus Australian kids and 117 million worldwide experiencing an anxiety disorder. That’s how far reaching and common anxiety has become.
For these kids, their experience of anxiety doesn’t pass when the threat, danger or stressful situation has passed. The anxiety they experience can disrupt their day to day life and family life in both predictable and unexpected ways. Anxiety has the potential to stand in the way of kids being kids and their ability to enjoy the quintessential elements of a happy, relaxed, carefree, playful childhood; but it doesn’t have to.
Anxious kids have a brain that works really hard to protect them from danger. A part of their brain is similar to the sentinel among meerkats who is always on their tippy-toes watchfully assessing the environment for threats. This means that anxious kids spend an inordinate amount of time with their fight or flight response in full swing.
It’s not by choice. It’s exhausting, and not just for the kids. Whether the threat is real or imagined, the brain and body react in the same way. An oversensitive brain will protect, protect, protect, even if the ‘threat’ seems innocuous to everybody else, or possibly isn’t even noticeable. Once the senses signal to the brain that danger is apparent, it’s comparable to opening the floodgates. The anxiety cascade begins as does the fallout, making a hard job more challenging for parents of an anxious child.
How to know if your child is anxious
Anxiety exists on a continuum ranging from high calmness through to low calmness, mild anxiety through to high anxiety. This is different to the traditional view where anxiety is ‘present’ or ‘absent’. Noticing if your child is moving away from a more calm and relaxed persona to feeling more stressed, along with any accompanying behavioural change, is your cue to ‘watch and wait’ over time to see if these changes in fact point to anxiety. Similarly, helping your child move in the direction of calmness helps buffer against stress.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety are grouped according to their impact on children’s emotions and physiology, behaviour and thinking.
Emotionally and physically
It’s common for anxiety symptoms to be physical given the changes that happen in the body when the fight or flight response is triggered. These include chest pain or discomfort, nausea, sleeplessness, tiredness, regularly crying over small problems, rapid heart rate and often appearing nervous.
It’s hard for anxious kids to concentrate when they’re feeling worried. It’s equally challenging to concentrate when their body feels revved up like a race car that is stuck in the pits. It’s no wonder anxiety shows in behaviours such as excessive fear of making mistakes, perfectionism, avoidance of activities that they feel worried or scared about, refusing to attend sleepovers and many other behaviours.
As the minds of anxious children are often on the lookout for threats and danger, they’re thinking all the time: reflecting on events of the past, analysing situations and reactions from every angle, wondering what’s going to happen next and worrying. If there was a ‘Worrying Olympics’, anxious kids would be gold medallists. Worrying and overthinking is a sign of anxiety.
How to help
There is so much you can do as a parent or teacher to assist your child to better manage their anxiousness. Start with the following three approaches:
Learn how anxiety works
A thorough understanding of the physiology and psychology of anxiety, the events that trigger anxiety in your child and how your child typically responds is the most important step you can take. This knowledge will increase your confidence which, in itself, will be a considerable source of calm for your a child.
Give your child the tools to self-regulate
Anxiety won’t disappear on it’s own. Children and young people need tools to recognise and regulate their emotions so they are able to function when anxious moments appear. Self-management tools such exercise, deep breathing and mindfulness will reduce their dependence on you, allowing them to manage their anxious states. These lifelong skills are invaluable for anyone who worries or who has a tendency towards anxiety.
Develop a lifestyle that minimises anxiety
A child’s lifestyle also impacts massively on their anxiety. Anxiety management tools will never be totally effective until it’s supported by a lifestyle that promotes a healthy mind and body. These seven lifestyle factors in their own way decrease the likelihood of a child experiencing anxiety: sleep, nutrition and gut health, play and movement, green time, knowing their values, volunteering and fostering healthy relationships.
While parenting an anxious child is an emotional rollercoaster, try to see each day as an opportunity to build greater awareness and resilience in your child.
Each day is peppered with pockets of time in which you can extend your child’s understanding of anxiety, where it comes from and why, as well as guiding them to practise the skills that show their amygdala they’re safe, calm their nervous system and restore their thinking brain back into action.